EVEN ON A rainy Tuesday, Cantina Los Caballitos is mobbed. Inside the tangerine building at the corner of Passyunk and Morris, the casually but carefully dressed crowd orders up mango margaritas and pumpkin empanadas. At the window table, a gay couple sits with a lesbian couple. As a candled dessert arrives in front of one of the ladies, the foursome launches into the requisite Haaaappy Birrrrrthday. Neighboring strangers join in, and after the candles are blown out, the two girls kiss lovingly to applause. The crowd is mostly straight hipster types and queer couples, though without the PDAs it can be hard to tell just who’s who. Outside, three old ladies ambling past take notice of the place. “It’s always busy,” one says to the others, motioning at the whirring restaurant with her cane. “And young.” They nod, though the subtext very well could be this: Where did our neighborhood go?
If you head to East Passyunk Avenue looking for red-sauce joints these days, well, good luck. They’re still around, but now there are far flashier pursuits to siphon your interest and your wallet, Cantina being just one of them. And while the new crowd in town consists especially of people like those crowded into tables at Cantina, more young families have started to come in as well, rehabbing old rowhomes. Most of the long-vacant storefronts along East Passyunk are rented or bought — a whopping dozen shops and eateries have opened in just the past two months. The local media is buying in, too: Inquirer foodie Craig LaBan and others are actually coming down here to test the budding restaurants and gastropubs, calling the neighborhood things like “newly vibrant” in their stories. And in light of the clear LGBT presence, some are even dubbing the strip “The New Gayborhood.”
One would imagine it’s all a bit shocking. Here on “the Avenue,” in the very heart of Souffilly, long before the pumpkin empanadas, was the neighborhood as the history books depict it: a bustling enclave filled with Italian immigrants who began arriving en masse in the late 19th century and built churches, small businesses, lives. Neighbors were family, literally or figuratively. By the end of the last century, things were shifting a bit: Mexican and Southeast Asian contingents moved in, and you could get a burrito and pho near the Italian Market. Yet it’s the dueling cheesesteak houses, the lawn chairs on the sidewalk, the paisanos, the aluminum awnings, the pasta fagiole, the territorial sweeping of one’s stoop, the PAAH-SHUNK not PASSIE-UNK, that still make up the caricature our collective consciousness conjures when we hear “South Philly.” And, if we’re honest, sometimes the rep tends to the worst: xenophobes; homophobes; racists; Old World, old-school, über-Catholic, yo-buddy-order-in-English, set-in-their-ways folks. Hardly the type we’d expect to hand over their ’hood to any newcomers. Not without a fight.
Ten years ago, the neighborhood was at a turning point, explains Susan Patrone, a resident of 13th and Tasker. At 56, she’s lived there her whole life. “Growing up here was magical,” she says. “My generation had extended family here, relationships already in place, and the party never ended. But now, 90 percent of the people I grew up with have moved.” Families made some money and went off to South Jersey and the Northeast; vacant properties popped up.
In the past few years, though, with so much affordable housing stock down here and Center City getting pricier by the day, the “grandmom houses” of South Philly have become what no one could have envisioned: hot property. “People are less afraid to go farther south now,” says realtor Trish Kelly, who has placed at least three dozen gay couples here in the past five years. “Though the real estate environment is slightly depressed, I believe this neighborhood is strong. But the people who grew up here and still live here are … well, a little confused with the world at the moment.”
The trend isn’t confusing at all to Kevin Gillen, a Penn research fellow and vice president of Econsult, an economics consulting firm. “This is the classic pattern,” says Gillen. “The artists and musicians are the first to take the risk in an emerging neighborhood. Then come the gay couples, who typically don’t have children and so don’t have the same worries about safety and school districts as young families.”
Indeed, gay migration has long been synonymous with trendsetting. And positive stereotypes about the gay intruders abound. They take care of their property and beautify the area, they’re entrepreneurial, they have disposable income and patronize local businesses, they promote community, they increase property values. And most importantly, they signal to the young families, yuppies and professionals that they should really come check this place out.
Capogiro’s Stephanie Reitano knew it. When developer Tony Goldman convinced Reitano and her husband to open a gelato shop at 13th and Sansom in 2002, in the heart of the city’s “gayborhood,” the dicey corner was no sure bet. “What was proven was, where gay people live, they spend money,” says Reitano. The risk paid off. Now she and her husband are trying their luck again — this time with a scoop-shop version of Capogiro on East Passyunk. “We have always loved this neighborhood,” says Reitano. “We’d go to Mr. Martino’s, Marra’s, and new places like Paradiso.”
“Now if only we could convince the old-timers to pay $4.87 for a small cup of ice cream,” muses Joseph Marino, co-chair of the East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association and the ’hood’s ersatz mayor, as he walks past the just-open gelateria. (Though Reitano says she has no trouble selling to the longtime locals, she often has to explain exactly what gelato is to the generation not born in Italy.) If anyone gets the old-guard-vs.-new-crowd dynamic, it’s Marino, who — as a lifetime resident, the music director at a local parish, and an openly gay man — embodies both of the cultures now melding in the heart of South Philly.
The first, and therefore bravest, of the entrepreneurs to see Passyunk’s potential was Lynn Rinaldi, a neighborhood gal who opened Paradiso in the fall of 2004 with her take on Italian and Mediterranean fare. Then came Cantina in 2006. In just a few years, there were charming new coffee shops and a hardware store; in came a couple of trendy women’s boutiques, a Sweat gym. Last year, Rinaldi opened Izumi, a sushi spot. And the three newest babies on the block are — no surprise — gay-owned: affordable-art shop Absolute Abstract, chic home/gift/baby store JimmyStyle, and kitschy, low-key eatery Michael’s Cafe. (It should be noted that the lesbians were here first — Maria Vanni and MaryAnn Brancaccio with August, a circa-2003 BYOB just off the Avenue, and Colleen DeCesare with cafe/coffee shop Black N Brew in 2007.) The newest projects are a yoga studio and Sticks & Stones, another gastropub. And the ’hood is abuzz with growing rumors of a gay-owned men’s clothing store, too.
IN A STRANGE twist of fate, it just might be that the new gayborhood’s real patriarch, its guiding light, is … Vince Fumo.
The embattled politico’s Citizens’ Alliance — the neighborhood improvement effort that was the centerpiece of the “misspending” that’s landing him in jail — bought up blighted properties along the Avenue beginning in 2000, and started rehabbing them and renting them at cheap rates to viable, renaissance-inducing tenants. Those tenants agreed to abide by certain rules: no ugly security gates, later hours of operation, changing window displays, and other business-smart guidelines that the older mom-and-pop shops pay little attention to. JimmyStyle was the last of these projects undertaken before Citizens’ crumbled in the wake of Fumo’s indictment.
Discussion of the neighborhood’s renaissance with Citizens’ last man-in-charge, Christian DiCicco — the son of City Councilman Frank — is ironic: This is Citizens’ property, Citizens’ initiative. You can sense the bittersweet tone in DiCicco’s voice as he sits in the outdoor space of sophisticated Italian spot Le Virtù. “This work was definitely dear to me,” he says, recounting how he tried to convince Stephen Starr to open here in 2002 or 2003. But even though Citizens’ is no more, DiCicco says, the groundwork it laid paid off. “I think the pieces are in place now,” he says. “Those with a true interest in the neighborhood will make sure it keeps succeeding.”
DiCicco has to talk loudly over the commotion here at Le Virtù. More than 100 people have filled the tiny courtyard for the third Queers on the Avenue (QOTA) event, a monthly LGBT night. Some folks are from the neighborhood; others have heard about the “new” South Philly through friends or Facebook and come from afar. At the first QOTA outing, held at Paradiso this spring and barely advertised, 180 people showed up. Even those skeptical of the marketing of the heart of South Philly to the gay community took notice, as businesses now jockey to host the next, lucrative QOTA event. “Why should all that money go to Center City?” asks Marino. “We’ve got great places to get together right here.”
Renee Gilinger is the director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District. Just off the plane from a vacation in Europe, she should be exhausted. But instead she’s standing on a chair, enthusiastically calling out the winning raffle tickets for gift baskets from JimmyStyle and Absolute Abstract, and reveling in the once-again stellar turnout. She’s long been involved in organizing the gay community, but QOTA is her great success. “I always knew there was a true LGBT presence here,” she says. “But until you have a space where everyone says ‘This is accepted,’ there’s an uncertainty. An older gay gentleman who has lived here for years told me he has never felt this comfort level.” Indeed, there have always been gay men living in South Philly, but they’ve done so quietly. Joseph DiDio, who has lived at 13th and Sigel for 17 years with his partner, vouches for this. “There are certainly more gays lately, and we’re more visible, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” he says. “It’s truly out of the closet.” Indeed. The new, empowered LGBT crowd isn’t going to dwell here quietly.
Dito van Reigersberg — better known as Martha Graham Cracker, Philly’s doyenne of drag queens — has lived at Gerritt and Dickinson with his partner, Pennsylvania Ballet choreographer Matthew Neenan, for five years. He likens walking down the Avenue now to “a veritable lesson in gayness.” “Just the other day, I passed the fountain,” says van Reigersberg, “and instead of the usual old Italian men hanging there, there were dinner tables full of gay couples.”
SO IS THE DEEPEST slice of South Philly, the land of Rocky, Joey Vento, and a sea of Virgin Marys in basement windows, really the new gayborhood? Sitting in the brand-new, mod JimmyStyle, owner and local fashionisto Jimmy Contreras is visibly irked when I pose that question. His first reaction is offense. “Why do we have to call it that?” he scoffs. “It’s a place that’s accepting of everybody.” But then he rethinks it. “Well, if it’s gonna help the neighborhood and make the yuppies move here, then go ahead and put the gay stamp on it. Who cares?”
In many ways, the stamp is ridiculous. There are no gay bars here (yet), no rainbow-bedecked street signs. But the point is that two men or two women can walk down Passyunk Avenue holding hands and not have to worry they’re going to be called fags or dykes — something that would have been unthinkable not that long ago.
A middle-aged woman walks into JimmyStyle. She’s Maria Vetri from across the street at Favors & Flavors, a chocolate shop. Vetri is a 43-year neighborhood veteran. “Did someone give you a dollar for the wall yet?” she asks Contreras in a perfect South Philly accent. “Here, you have to put it up for luck.” She’s only got a five, but forks it over anyway, and scribbles “Good Luck, Love Maria” on the bill.
“Everyone has been so, so welcoming,” says Contreras.
But surely — surely, because after all, this is Philadelphia, city of neighborhoods, land of the parochial and the ethnically distrusting — tension must exist between the Old Guard and the New People, battles erupting over their different lifestyles and the loss of the ’hood’s True Identity. Ah, not often. Actually, not at all.
Sure, the vets, the people who grew up here, whose families before them grew up here, are a little nostalgic, a little confused, a little, okay, leery. But the real God’s-honest truth is, for the most part … they get over it, and everyone gets along. I spent weeks trolling up and down and around Passyunk Avenue, in the process talking to some 70-odd residents. And what I got in response to my question — “How do you feel about the ‘new people’ moving in?” — was one resounding, unanimous, totally contrarian, are-you-kidding-me? answer: Thank God.
Because in these uncertain economic days, having people who want to live where you live, who want to shop there and renovate there and contribute to the community there — who want to be your neighbor, in the truest sense of the word — is a gift not to be returned. The old widows aren’t scowling at the gay couples moving onto the block. They’re making them cannolis.
“I can’t read my book anymore,” says 80-year-old widow Mary Galanti Papola, who’s lived in the same home at 13th and Tasker her whole life, “because all the new neighbors come by and want to talk to me!” With regard to the “new people,” she says, “I think they’re pretty nice. They’re very Democratic. I can’t find one that I would say was nasty. And if they’re gay, that’s great. They upgrade the neighborhood.”
“There was a 70-year-old woman sweeping alongside a tattooed young man who had big plug earrings,” Joe Marino recalls of a recent neighborhood clean-up event. “Well, they became quick friends and started talking about the best way to grow basil in their yards. The point is, it’s true that South Philadelphians are not easily swayed, and they have the courage of their convictions. But when it comes to community, they’re not narrow-minded; they’re single-minded.”
Susan Patrone’s mother was in the self-checkout at the Acme, “in front of some big tattooed, pierced kid,” says Patrone. “She was a little nervous, intimidated. But when she left cash on the machine and started to walk away, he tapped her and said, ‘Here, you left this.’”
“You go out on the Avenue on a Friday night and you walk through the Cantina sidewalk — which is impossible because maybe it’s filled with hipsters — and there might be a family in front at Paradiso, and then Michael’s has a completely different crowd, and then you look across the street and see those old Italian men playing cards,” Stephanie Reitano says. “Philly should be thankful that this exists. You’re not gonna see this in Boston or New York. It’s a really cool time to be here.”
The Center City crowd is coming to check out teeny gastropub Lucky 13 because LaBan raved about it, suggesting that this ’hood could be one of the next restaurant rows. New businesses are staying open late to catch the foot traffic. The zoning laws are stringent enough to halt overdevelopment, which is good, because Marino will positively lose it if a Starbucks moves in.
Newcomers choose this place for its history, its sense of community, for saying “Hi” when you pass on the Avenue. “They want to be part of something authentic,” says Patrone, “and South Philly’s for real.”